Principles for an early Labour housing policy

This is the follow on from my post the other day, arguing that Labour didn’t need housing policies now. But we do need to set out some principles to show how we’d be different and use as a basis for opposition to the government. Here’s my starter for 10, but are these too specific and prescriptive still?

  • Defend the principle that the state has a duty to ensure the poorest and most vulnerable are properly housed.

Under attack from the coalition a no brainer for us.

  • Promote the principle that the state has a role in ensuring the housing system meets everyone’s aspirations

The government should ensure that the private housing market and the mortgage market works better to meet what people want. And there should be a role helping those who aren’t the most vulnerable, but may struggle to buy, to have housing that meet their needs.

  • A commitment to mixed communities

 There are good policy reasons to ensure a mixture of incomes, class and ethnicities in a neighbourhood. It helps build understanding and solidarity between different types of people. And I believe the type of segregation you see in the US, France or elsewhere is culturally alien to us in Britain. For example, part of London’s identity has always been that rich and poor could live ‘cheek by jowl.’

  • Maintain some ‘Bricks and Mortar’ subsidy, i.e. grant to build affordable homes

The government has shifted financial support for those who can’t afford a home from building affordable homes (bricks and mortar subsidy) to housing benefit to allow people to pay private or near private rents (personal subsidy). This will be difficult even in five years’ time, but we shouldn’t give it up. Mixed communities depend on it and it means we support a wider range of providers.

  • A commitment to a mixed economy of housing; more products, more choice from more providers.

Labour should promote a more diverse sector: a wider range of private builders and more opportunities for smaller firms, more space for co-ops and mutuals, get more housing associations of different sizes building and free councils to build again. Encourage, support, cajole and compel providers to offer a diverse range of products from supported housing for those with extensive needs, to traditional social rents, to a variety of sub-market rents, to well managed professional private rent and a range of ways to get into homeownership.

  • Embrace localism; free councils.

Tricky this one. The government’s localism is a front for neglecting their responsibilities for ensuring everyone is well housed. But, support for new housing best comes from a local area and housing provision should respond to local needs, the type of community and people’s aspirations. One popular way would be to free councils to start building again and putting their housing business on the same footing as housing associations with the ability to borrow (someone with better knowledge needs to correct me as to why this is so impossible, as I’m often told). They should be able to build for a range of needs and aspirations and not just social rent. We will need to find a credible way to square this with 1. What happens when local areas make decisions that make it impossible to house everyone well?

  • Intervene to prevent another property bubble

If house prices ever start running away again, let’s be brave and act. And let’s tell people now that we will curb excessive house price rises. Making this argument successfully should be done immediately while the economic crisis is still fresh in people’s minds. You won’t convince homeowners just at the time when you need to do it that it’s needed.
There may be more things I think of…


Labour doesn't need a housing policy yet

There seem to be some calls for Labour to have a worked out housing policy as an alternative to the government’s now.
That would be a daft move.
It’s four and a half years to the next election and the government is starting the most radical process of reform to housing in a generation. Whether these reforms are successful in their own terms or not, the housing system will be very different when Labour next has a chance to implement an alternative (I assume that the Coalition will run the course).
Writing a housing policy that’s credible now is unlikely to work five years on. And trying to write a policy for five years’ time requires too much guess-work and will sounds out of touch now.
Ed Miliband and Alison Seabeck are absolutely right to wait, think and develop their ideas.
So, in the long meantime, how do we oppose the government? Here’s what I think:

  • Firstly, we take the government at their word and hold them to it.

The government has some laudable rhetoric: to build more mixed communities, to build more homes and more affordable homes, to tackle worklessness in social housing, to make it easier to move within social housing. Let’s exploit the differences between their words and the effects of their policies.

  • Secondly, avoid falling into any elephant traps that we live to regret, especially promises to reverse particular measures.

Reinstate security of tenure? Cut rents back to ‘traditional’ social rent? Restore the duty to house the homeless in the social sector? They might sound great ideas now, but on entering office, they probably won’t be so attractive. The future businesses of housing associations are likely to be built on these measures, as will housing provision by local authorities.
Do we want to re-enter office with pledges that immediately threaten the basis of our main housing providers? No, we don’t.  And this path leaves us the defenders of a status quo which had some pretty serious faults. Needless to say that’s not a winning position.

  • Set out the principles of a Labour housing policy, and one which is not beholden to what we have done in the past.

That’s the hardest task. I’ll give my starter for 10 in my next post.


Odd effects

It’s no exaggeration to say that the changes that the government are introducing to affordable housing are the most extensive and far-reaching since 1945. They’re also implementing them at real pace.
That means they can’t really work through the impacts of what will happen on the ground when all these reforms start working together. Some of the effects are going to be pretty perverse, from what I hear from housing people. Here’s one:
In the private rented sector, families are going to be forced out of family-sized homes, and these same homes will become the preserve of single people.
1. The cap on housing benefit and the cap on overall benefits to £26,000, are likely to force larger families into smaller homes as family homes for them become unaffordable. There’s a strong chance that this measure will considerably increase overcrowding.  
2. The government’s reforms to single people’s benefits will give people under-35 enough housing benefit to afford a room is a shared home. So, as families stop being able to afford to live in family homes, private landlords will find it easier to let larger homes to several single people.
So, it would seem to the centre that these are consistent policies to reducing the benefits bill – imposing benefit limits on families and single people. On the ground, it creates the perverse situation where poorer families get forced out of family homes which are then colonised by poorer single people.
The Mayor of London and the government have said it’s a problem that there are not enough family homes for families and we don’t build enough of them. It’s true. But, family homes in the private sector for poorer people are going to become more scarce.


The Tories will reduce the waiting lists…

…and they can do it without housing a single extra person.
This is old news for those who read Steve’s post a couple of weeks ago, but the housing minister has been busy today arguing that the growing waiting lists demonstrate his reforms are the right thing to do.
He certainly will cut waiting lists; his reform paper gives councils the ability to limit those who join the waiting lists and those who want to move within social housing will be taken out of the current allocations system and off the waiting lists. The second of these is no bad move. It could help people move more easily. But, it takes people off the waiting list, whether they are successfully housed or not.
In short, the shrinking of the waiting lists in the coming years will have little relationship to more people getting secure, good quality homes. Don’t forget that when the Tories start boasting.
It’s worth considering the end of open waiting lists for a moment. Labour believe that public housing isn’t just a safety net for the neediest and most vulnerable, but could and should be a support for working people, especially those on low incomes. That’s why, at the moment, anyone can apply to social housing lists regardless of their level of need (even if their chances of actually getting a home are virtually nil). It represented a belief that public housing was part of building settled successful and prosperous communities, not the antithesis to them.
This is not the Conservative view – increasingly they see it as a temporary safety net for people, which should be available for a short time only. That’s why they’d like councils to impose criteria of need onto who applies for social housing. It’s why they’d like landlords to not renew the new time-limited tenures, if people’s incomes have risen.  
This is an entirely different philosophy and one which means all estates by definition must be the stereotypical ‘sink’ estates: unless you’re desperate, you shouldn’t be allowed to live there.


Scaremongers abound

During the election the Tories were very keen on painting Labour as a negative party, who wanted to whip up unfounded fears about the Tories’ secret and malicious plans. On cancer tests, cuts, and Sure Start, among others, the cry of scaremongering went up from Dave, George and co. 
It’s an effective political technique that undermines the credibility of criticism by arguing that it is extreme and that those making it are desperate, with only the power of fear to play on.
Such a skirmish took place on the housing front. People who pay attention to housing will remember this in Inside Housing April 2010. Rattled by Labour claims that the Tories would hike social housing rents and abolish security of tenure, Mr Cameron came out to bat himself to rebut such claims.
He said these claims were part of a ‘scare campaign’, Labour’s allegations were ‘simply untrue’ and that the Conservatives believe in the ‘security [social housing] provides’.
Within months of their election they are set to abolish security of tenure and allow social housing rents to rise to 80% of market rents.
Regardless of if you think these measures are good or bad, they broke their promises and were perhaps even telling porkies at the time. 
Anyway, it’s an unattractive habit of political people to rake over lost election claims, seeking retrospective justification. But does this episode tell us anything about our government now and in the future?
Didn’t Clegg and others jump to say Labour were scaremongering over housing benefit cuts compelling people to move out of their communities? Remind me, what was Eric Pickles’ response to the (Tory-controlled) Local Government Association’s assessment of the impact of cuts on council services? Scaremongering?
Just a thought: Rather than scaremongering being the last resort of desperate parties, aren’t accusations of scaremongering becoming the first resort of our government when they’ve been caught bang to rights?


The Freedom to be Bad (or Good?)

As Steve said in his last post, it’ll take a while to work through everything in the government’s consultation on social housing.
I want to kick off by commenting on its central themes of choice, flexibility and localism, which will be much vaunted in the face of the old ‘top-down’, ‘static’, ‘monolithic’ system.
The paper does represent a genuine transfer of powers and freedoms out of central government to social housing landlords. Is this localism though? It is a localist measure to give freedoms to councils. These freedoms will also be exercised by housing associations, many of which have tens of thousands of properties, stretching across many council areas and regions. What does this mean for localism? Councils have a democratic accountability. Housing associations don’t. Yet they will be able to decide centrally the length of a tenant’s tenure and under what circumstances they will be evicted after two years. Big powers without democratic legitimacy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing housing associations – the best are great at consulting and involving their tenants. But that’s not the same as democratic accountability. Just because government is giving away more freedoms, doesn’t mean it’s local and it doesn’t mean it’s more democratic.
The next question is – freedom and flexibility for whom?
Councils and housing associations now have more freedom to reduce the length of tenure, decide whether to allow tenants to stay in their homes after two years, charge higher rents and place homeless people in the private rented sector. So social housing providers have loads more freedoms and choices.
Where however are the guarantees of new choices for tenants? What are the new choices that the paper provides people living in social housing? Well, there are new measures that may make it easier for existing tenants to move home within the social sector. A modest and welcome measure – but hardly a revolution.
Councils and housing associations now have a great deal of direct power over the lives of their tenant and future tenants. The question is how will they use those powers and for what? There is much freedom to be malicious and prove Shelter right that these reforms are an attack on the poor. 
For Labour councils the challenge is this: can they use these new powers for progressive ends, for greater choices and options for tenants, to help build more sustainable communities, to support tenants into employment? Do they have the freedom to be good? Do they have the freedoms to show there are alternatives to the coalition’s policies?


Council housing for life and 'fairness'

It is being reported this morning (e.g. on Today) that security of tenure for council tenants will be reduced to two and a half years. In what is a fairly typical pattern for DCLG these days, there is nothing in the way of more information or a press release on the website.
It seems that after 2 years or so all tenants will be assessed for whether they ‘need’ council housing anymore; perhaps their income has risen or their household has become smaller. If they don’t ‘need’ it, they’ll have six months to move out. Again, the government will wheel-out a ‘fairness’ argument: why should people receive a subsidised property when they have the means to afford one in the market (probably private rented market) while there are others in need on the waiting list? So far so good?
But this surely is a bit of a disaster for making work pay and providing incentives to get into work; the major problem which IDS and George Osbourne are trying to solve? The government’s basic criticism against social housing is that is underpins dependency, poverty and worklessness: people get a cheap social home for life, with no conditions and no incentive to improve their circumstances.
But surely this reform runs completely counter to this? If you are on a low-income or without a job and you get a social tenancy from next summer onwards, why on earth would you strive to get a job or increase your income? You’d know that it meant, in a couple of years’ time, you’d lose your home because of it. 
If you did get a job, most likely not a well paid one, isn’t there quite a big incentive to ‘lose’ it just before you get assessed by the tenancy police?
People’s homes are pretty important to them, especially if they’ve been on a waiting list for years to get one. The unstable and poorly paid jobs that people often get as they first move into work, may well be sacrificed so they can keep their home.
This is such an obvious counter argument that I’m sure there is a government fudge on the issue on the way.

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Indecently decent

A guest post from Maureen C
Like Red Brick I’m pleased to see so much news coverage of housing and benefit issues as this new government appears to announce new, ill thought out policies, most of which they have no mandate from the electorate for, on a daily basis.  Even when the press get things wrong, as they have on some aspects of the HB reforms, it is nevertheless good to get the issues out there.
Grant Snapps made some statements yesterday on proposals to alter funding arrangements for Decent Homes which do not seem to have attracted attention yet. These represent more bad news for the many tenants who still live in homes that do not meet the decent homes standard. Interestingly the background papers on this state ‘46% of council owned non-decent homes will lie in London at end March 2011.’
The decent homes standard is fairly basic – it includes having modern kitchens, bathrooms and electrical systems. But the previous government’s arrangements have quietly transformed standards in social housing all over the country. Millions of council properties in particular have been brought up to a decent standard after decades of under investment.
Some councils have done this by transferring their stock to housing associations. But where council tenants, understandably in many cases, voted against wholesale transfers , councils could get access to funding (largely loans) if the arms length management companies (ALMOs) they formed to run the housing got 2 stars in an Audit Commission inspection. The rationale was to incentivise councils to provide better quality, VFM services for their residents and ensure services were built around residents’ needs and preferences. As anyone who lives and works in this area knows -better housing, opportunities and stronger communities need much more than bricks and mortar. But decades of tenants’ pressure to improve services and design fell on deaf ears. No teeth and no real market to power better services.
Inspections assessed this independently and were widely credited with driving up services and standards. The reality is that housing organisations had to up their game and provide better, more customer orientated, VFM services to get 2 stars. These efforts produced good results for tenants that sadly previous decades of tenant and political pressure had failed to deliver. Over 20 ALMOs got top scores of 3 stars for excellent service and 40 have 2 stars – making them the best performing in the sector.
Now Grant Snapps has slashed the funding for future programmes to meet decency standards – down from £680 million to £260 million in 2011/12.
And the pressure is off landlords to improve their services as they no longer need to get 2 stars to access what little funding remains.  Under the banner of reducing the ‘hoops to go through’ funding will be decided upon by the regulator (what’s left of the regulator anyway). The proposals, published by HCA, state ‘We will work with the regulator to achieve appropriate assurance on value for money in the use of funding.’
So much for transparency and accountability.
They had a system that produced better services for tenants and decent homes. It wasn’t perfect but it did produce some of the best outcomes for tenants in social housing we’ve seen for decades. Now we can have no assurance that the reduced funding will fuel better services and choices for tenants who deserve much better than this.  Will this get picked up by the national media?